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What Two Successive High-Profile Exits Portend for the Congress Party

The developments in the Congress have given yet another opportunity for critics to attack the party leadership, after some dissent was neutralised during the recent Chintan Shivir.

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New Delhi: The high-profile exits of Hardik Patel and Sunil Jakhar from the Congress have come on the heels of the party’s Chintan Shivir – a brainstorming camp in Udaipur that was aimed at devising ways to revive the party. The development will surely put the Congress leadership, especially the Gandhi family, in a tight spot. The leadership has been attacked by dissenters within the party and critics for not showing political acumen or steering the party well as the Bharatiya Janata Party deepens its dominance across the country. 

The Chintan Shivir, in more ways than one, bought the Gandhi family some time to prolong the status quo and at the same time sent feelers to political observers that the party has eventually understood the need for course correction. However, Patel and Jakhar’s decisions to part ways with the party immediately after the brainstorming camp are likely to upset much of the efforts put in by the leadership to bring the house in order. 

To be fair, both leaders had been showing signals of dissension in the party, and the leadership may not have played as big a role as much as their own tormented ambitions. 

Jakhar, the former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president who lost the chief ministerial race to Charanjit Singh Channi after Congress Working Committee member Ambika Soni insisted on having a turbaned Jat Sikh as the top, had been sending out one critical tweet after another against his party. Following the Congress’s defeat in the assembly elections in Punjab, Jakhar had reasons to feel vindicated. 

Also read: ‘Gujarat Congress Busy Ensuring Timely Chicken Sandwich for Delhi Leaders’: Hardik Patel Quits Party

However, his decision to join the BJP came as a surprise, given he and his family had been associated with the Congress for many decades. His father Balram Jakhar, a staunch Gandhi family loyalist, was the longest-serving speaker in the Lok Sabha till date, and served as a Union minister in the Narasimha Rao government. Even at the worst of times, the Jakhar family never left the Congress. 

With Sunil Jakhar joining the BJP, the primary ideological rival of the Congress, the churning within the Congress is starkly visible. Jakhar, as the PCC president of Punjab, was known as a backend manager for the party. Even as many Congressmen in Punjab rebelled from time to time, Jakhar was the one to keep the Congress unit of the state in order. His loss will definitely hurt the Congress – probably more than it can perceive now. 

With Jakhar in the party, the BJP has scored a reputed Hindu face in the Sikh-majority state. His knowledge of the contours of state politics will help the saffron party in building its organisation. Until now, the saffron party had been mostly dependent on the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), and lately former Congress chief minister Amarinder Singh. However, Jakhar, with nothing else to lose apart from his own political career, could prove to be a wilier strategist for the BJP than all its previous allies. 

Political observers will agree that the Congress leadership should have made efforts to keep an experienced Jakhar, who has had a clean record and enjoys the image of an incorruptible leader, in its stable. However, it chose to send disciplinary notices to the senior leader, which seemed to eventually prod Jakhar to switch over to the BJP. Dissent is not new in the Punjab unit of the Congress, but none of the previous rebels were given the treatment that Jakhar has had to face in the recent months. With Navjot Singh Sidhu behind bars for a year, and Channi having lost his credibility after the electoral defeat, the Punjab Congress is practically leaderless at present. 

Similarly, Hardik Patel had given a boost to Congress’s electoral prospects in Gujarat. In the run-up to 2017 assembly elections, Patel mobilised a large section of the Patidar community, which had been loyal to the BJP since the 1980s. He led a movement to seek reservation for the Patidars, while also demanding a better public education system in the state. He, along with Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani, became the opposition faces that benefited the Congress greatly. In 2017, Congress had scored its best with 77 seats, while the BJP was at its lowest with 99 seats. The trio of Patel, Thakore and Mevani was considered by many observers as the reason why the Congress could contain the BJP in the double digits. 

Also read: Congress’s Chintan Shivir Was a Step in the Right Direction

Not that Patel was not adequately rewarded. The Congress created the position of working president to accommodate Patel, despite the fact that his elevation did not go down well with many Congress old-timers. With multiple cases against him, Patel could not contest a single election. However, since most of those charges have been cleared now, the upcoming elections would have been the first time when Patel could have contested on a Congress ticket. His resignation will be a missed opportunity for the Congress. 

If his resignation letter is anything to go by, Patel is most likely to join the BJP. Sources in the saffron party also confirm this possibility. The 28-year-old Patidar leader’s resignation letter, while lampooning the Congress leadership for its alleged indecisiveness, appeared to support some of the Narendra Modi government’s key decisions such as the dilution of Article 370 and the promulgation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He also seemed to take a sudden liking to Hindu nationalist campaigns on the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya and the proposed National Register of Indian Citizens.

Patel’s resignation is not surprising. Ever since the Congress had been wanting to induct the influential Patidar community leader Naresh Patel, Hardik Patel has been insecure. Naresh is a Patidar community leader who every party has reached out to, but it is said that he is inclined towards the Congress. While Naresh comes from the Leuva Patel community, Hardik belongs to the rival Kadva Patel community. 

What is surprising, however, is Hardik Patel’s timing. The BJP has already contained much of the Patidar anger in the state. By appointing Bhupendra Patel, a Patidar leader with a clean slate, as the chief minister, the saffron party appears to placate much of the rebellion among influential groups among Patidars. Thus, if Hardik Patel joins the BJP, he may not receive the importance that he was given in the Congress. 

As far as optics of the state politics is concerned, the BJP has now neutralised what was once seen as the opposition trio. Alpesh Thakore, soon after getting elected as a Congress MLA, joined the BJP. The saffron party has also begun to attack Mevani in an unprecedented manner. With Hardik Patel’s resignation, the trio lies more or less broken. 

The developments in the Congress have given yet another opportunity for critics to attack the party leadership. The BJP, on the other hand, has successfully diverted attention away from the Congress’s Chintan Shivir, which had created a positive air around the party. Thus, one can see election strategist Prashant Kishor, who was until recently in talks with the Congress, predicting an “impending rout” for the Congress in the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. At the same time, political observers have upped their ante against the Gandhi family’s leadership once again. 

Unless and until the leadership of the Congress takes full control of the party, or makes way for someone else to take over, the crisis in the Congress will not die. Despite interim president Sonia Gandhi’s appeal to all leaders to speak in one voice and reach out to Indian people, the rebellion in the party will continue. The now-frequent exodus of influential leaders from the party is only a symptom of a disease that now seems to have become cancerous.